HBO’s ‘Looking’ And The Queer Bechdel Test

The most pleasant surprise about the pilot for HBO’s new series Looking, for me, was its depiction of friendship between gay men.

With Andrew Haigh, director of an incredible film called Weekend, at the helm of Looking, I took for granted that the show would be a refreshing and relatable take on the queer experience. But Russell, the main character of Weekend, was a lone wolf, held back by his insecurity and introversion. There simply wasn’t a place, in that story, for an examination of gay male/gay male friendship.

Looking, on the other hand, features three out-and-proud protagonists, and the platonic interactions between them are wonderfully familiar to me. These men can regard each other with simultaneous judgment, support, and flirtatiousness; they can openly confide in one another about their sexual frustations, or call each other out on their romantic bullshit. I don’t think I’ve seen this on television before, and I hadn’t realized how lovely it would be.

Gay men have been on television for decades now, but all too often their appearance boils down to tokenism. They’re normally there in aid of the greater heterosexual narrative, and rarely are they afforded three dimensions: the sassy best friend, the perceptive coworker, the inappropriately flirtatious waiter. These characters rarely have impactful problems of their own – problems that acknowledge their sex lives, or the intricacies of the queer experience. Even rarer still is the presence of more than one queer character in a given show. (Can you imagine a queer appropriation of the Bechdel Test? If I only watched shows and movies that featured at least two named queer characters who, at some point, have a conversation that doesn’t concern straight people… I’d read a lot more books.)

Girls, a constant point of comparison to Looking since the moment the production was announced, is a great example of this dilemma, with its character Elijah, whose sole narrative purpose is to accelerate various heterosexual plot points. The moment he instigates the second season’s main ongoing conflict (a rough patch between straight best friends Hannah and Marnie), he’s out of sight, and the show continues to focus exclusively on the straight experience.

True Blood, to be fair, is one example of a show that eventually featured a number of queer recurring players. But by the time that show got around to introducing queer characters beyond Lafayette (a sassy waiter), its supernatural subplots had become an overblown mess, and the writers were so busy maintaining a sense of cohesion, that they didn’t have space to flesh out any of the characters, let alone the queer ones.

Six Feet Under, another HBO offering, gave us David Fisher almost fifteen years ago – a man with complexities, anxieties and ambitions that were often impacted by his sexuality. David was closeted for a chunk of that show’s timeline. It was an astounding character study to be sure, but, as was the case with Weekend, a look at the gay community at large wasn’t in the cards for that story.

As such, I consider a show as immersive as Looking to be overdue. What’s funny, though, is how apolitical the pilot seems, despite the cultural ramifications of such a thing existing in the first place. It’s revealed early that one of the main characters’ ex-boyfriends is getting married, and the show feels no need to wax lyrical about the historical significance of such an event. Instead, the character laments that his ex is settling down so quickly. This is activism at its simplest: by handling  sexuality so elementarily, the show does a lot for the depiction of queer people on television.

Implicit activism is further seen in the show’s casting. There’s racial diversity, lots of it, and it’s no big deal. A threesome, for instance, unfolds suddenly between a Latino guy, his black boyfriend, and a new friend of theirs, who is white. When the boyfriends discuss the experience afterwards, they focus on what it means for their ongoing relationship. Race and sexual orientation are the last things on their minds, as they probably would be.

With so many queer characters – or, better put, characters who happen to be queer – Looking paints an optimistic portrait. But is it too optimistic? Is the world of Looking too much of a gay utopia? The only scene in the pilot that I take any issue with occurs near the end: two men meet for the first time on a crowded subway, and proceed to hit on each other. Maybe I’m being a downer here, but I find it hard to believe that an ingrained fear of the heterosexual gaze wouldn’t inform that interaction. It’s public transit; it’s after dark. Even in San Francisco, would two men be that fearless? As one of them heads to the exit, the other hollers over the heads of fellow passengers: “If I call you, will you hang around with me?” I feel as though this subway exchange would have played out differently in the real world. That said, I’ve never been to San Francisco (nor have I been hit on while riding the subway).

Time will tell how, or if, Looking will find a place for discrimination, and its inextricable role in queer lives, within its narrative. But judging by its stellar pilot, I, for one, am optimistic.

Looking premieres in the UK on Sky Atlantic, Monday 27th January at 10pm // Airs in the U.S and Canada on HBO, Sundays at 10.30pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrxNK9aqDyM

Words: Ben Ladouceur